A two-week multi-agency undercover prostitution sting nabbed 79 people, freeing six trafficking victims, including a 16-year-old, officials announced Tuesday at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Conroe. Carried out between Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 in the Kingwood area, Operation Labour netted arrests of 71 people charged with prostitution.
“We’re grateful that the (Montgomery County) District Attorney’s Office will prosecute those people and it won’t become a slap-on-the-wrist offense,” said Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Scott Spencer.
There were 37 men identified as solicitors and 34 women identified as prostitutes, according to Spencer. Jovanti Harris, 25, of Cypress, was charged with felony promotion of prostitution.
“Montgomery County has a reputation and will continue to have a reputation for being extremely tough on people who want to buy sex in Montgomery County. That’s the message that needs to be heard today,” said Assistant District Attorney Tyler Dunman. “If you’re going to attempt to buy sex in Montgomery County, you’re going to be caught and we’re going to prosecute you to the fullest extent. You will walk away with a conviction in Montgomery County.”
During Operation Labour, nonprofit organizations were used in the recovery of the individuals being forced, defrauded or coerced into sex trafficking, including five women and one 16-year-old girl. Police interrogations of those in custody led to the identification of the six victims, Spencer explained. Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mandy Curry said further investigation into the cases could lead to some more of the women arrested on prostitution charges to be released if identified as trafficking victims.
“They’re not going to come forward and say, ‘I’m a victim,’ so we have to dig deeper,” Curry said.
The effort also involved the Montgomery County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the Fort Bend District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance. Detectives and agents posed as both buyers and sellers of prostitution.
“We’re very proud of the results that have come about,” Sheriff Rand Henderson said.
Sheriff’s Office Lt. Michael Landrum declined to explain how the operation unfolded and as to whether it was conducted online, saying arresting information was pulled from multiple sources. Though there was not a network of trafficking involved in this sting, Landrum did say some of the arrests were made jointly as some of the alleged offenders were together at the time of the offense.
“While Operation Labour focused on identification and recovery of victims and arrested those responsible, it also targeted the buyers of illicit sex with the purposes of deterring those individuals because we know that many of those advertised on illicit websites are victims,” said Sgt. John Wall, of HPD’s vice division and head of the regional HTRA task force.
Henderson mentioned different state and federal entities as having a hand in Operation Labour, among them the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Nonprofits involved in victim recovery included DeliverFund, Freedom Restore, The Landing and Love People, Not Pixels.
The sting also produced additional charges for two of the men arrested for prostitution, one for drug possession and the other for felon in possession of a firearm. There were also eight not implicated in prostitution who were charged: seven for drug possession, one for felon in possession of a firearm and for evading arrest with a vehicle.
Also, in one arrest, a two-year-old was found in the vehicle of a woman charged. The toddler was placed in the care of family.
“The main mission of this will always be to rescue, but we also identify other criminal elements while these offenses are prosecuted,” Henderson said.
Dunman, who is special crimes chief at the DA’s Office, urged for community engagement to help generate leads to prostitution arrests, referencing the county’s sex trafficking diversion program, Project AVERT. He said rescuing victims in these stings makes the efforts involved in arresting perpetrators “all worth it.”
Another Montgomery County-led prostitution sting 11 months ago in The Woodlands led to the arrest of 75.